Friday, March 25, 2022

Where will non-metropolitan news outlets get the revenue they need to support good journalism? We need answers.

In America's major cities, "The old-line metro newspapers mostly continue to decline" but "new entrants are emerging, some of them quite promising," retired news executive Richard J. Tofel writes in Second Rough Draft, his Substack newsletter about journalism and the news business (which are not the same thing; the news business pays for journalism). But what about non-metropolitan areas? Tofel asks, "What will happen to local news elsewhere, especially in smaller towns and rural areas, and particularly in places where people don’t tend to have as much money" to support journalistic enterprises with subscriptions, memberships and donations?

Richard J. Tofel
(Nieman Journalism Lab photo)
Tofel, a former top executive at The Wall Street Journal and ProPublica, now runs a publishing consultancy, Gallatin Advisory, and he admits he doesn't have an answer to his question. Last May, he wrote a piece calling on local funders to keep pace with national philanthropy for journalism, but now seems to have fear that they won't be a major factor in saving local news.

He sees a future in which "for-profit general news organizations of less than enormous scale (and therefore almost all local digital outlets) will increasingly be dependent almost entirely on reader revenue." But paywalls "require high-quality content in high quantity, and while high quality is being achieved in many places, almost none have the resources to achieve it regularly. That leaves the nonprofit donor/member model, which is the one adopted by most of the new entrants, and it is the area of the greatest progress right now. But what about communities of less particular interest to donors, and with fewer potential contributing members?"

"There is a scenario—in the medium term perhaps a likelihood—that many of the poorer, more sparsely populated parts of our country face an especially bleak news picture. For them, advertising won’t be enough, readers and local donors lack resources, and help from the national philanthropic cavalry may not arrive, at least yet," Tofel writes. He says he's encouraged by nonprofits like Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia, Mississippi Today and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, but those are state-based news outlets that do little of the granular local reporting traditionally done by local newspapers. 

Tofel writes, "There is a scenario—in the medium term perhaps a likelihood—that many of the poorer, more sparsely populated parts of our country face an especially bleak news picture. For them, advertising won’t be enough, readers and local donors lack resources, and help from the national philanthropic cavalry may not arrive, at least yet. . . . Such an outcome would almost certainly deepen fissures in our society, fissures between poor and rich, between the better and less well educated, between those of opposing political beliefs."

Tofel concludes, "The problem of local news for the poor, rural and parched is the hardest nut at the heart of our news problems today. It’s important, at the very least I think, to keep it in mind."

73% of counties had more births than deaths in 2020-21, but most micropolitan areas gained people as they fled cities

Bureau of the Census map, adapted by The Rural Blog; for a larger version, click on it.

Almost three-fourths of U.S. counties had more deaths than births in 2020, a pandemic-driven phenomenon never seen before, according to data released Thursday by the Census Bureau.

"More people died than were born in 2,297 (73 percent) of the nation’s 3,143 counties between July of 2020 and July of 2021. This is the most counties to suffer such a loss in U.S. history and 60 percent more than before the Covid pandemic began two years ago," writes Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer in the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

"That's unheard of in American history," Johnson told Fredrick Kunkle of The Washington Post. He wrote for Carsey that nationwide, "With immigration also at a low ebb, the population grew by just 393,000—the lowest rate of annual population increase in history and the smallest numeric gain in more than 100 years."

Rural counties, which had a slight population loss from the 2010 census to the one in 2020, appeared to benefit from last year's trend. Kunkle reports, "Millions of residents traded cities for suburbs or larger suburbs for smaller ones. Many migrated farther into rural counties or resettled to second homes in vacation areas."

The Census Bureau's report reflects that: "Most of the nation’s counties – 2,063 or 65.6% – experienced positive domestic migration overall." it says. "In many cases, there was a shift from larger, more populous counties to medium and smaller ones. These patterns contributed to population increases in 1,822 counties (58.0%), while 1,313 (41.8%) lost residents, and eight (0.3%) saw no change in population."

The report didn't look at rural population, but did examine micropolitan or "micro" areas, which have population centers with 10,000 to 50,000 population: "Micro areas, up 0.2% between 2020 and 2021, grew slightly faster than U.S. metro areas, which increased by 0.1%. This is a departure from past trends when metro areas typically grew at a faster rate than micro areas. Among metro areas, 251 (65%) experienced population increases between 2020 and 2021. Of the 543 U.S. micro areas, 287 (52.9%) had population increases in 2021."

Philip Bump of The Washington Post produced maps giving the relative population changes in rural counties and overall:

Tornadoes shift to Southeast, where they tend to be deadlier because of timing (night), geography and population density

Northern Illinois University map; click on it to enlarge
"Tuesday night’s deadly tornado that struck the New Orleans area is the ideal example of what experts say is the 21st century problem with twisters: Killer tornadoes have shifted a bit out of the vast emptiness of the Great Plains, more into the Southeast where there are more people to hit, poorer populations and more trees to obscure twisters from view," Seth Borenstein reports for The Associated Press. "Since 2000, nearly 89% of the 1,653 Americans killed by tornadoes — not counting this week’s victims — lived east of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, according to an Associated Press analysis of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data."

These tornadoes aren't necessarily more powerful than the ones that hit the Great Plains; they're just hitting more densely populated areas. Twisters in Tornado Alley, in contrast, can go for miles without hitting much, Borenstein reports.

Climate change plays a major part in why tornado frequency is shifting east to "tornado fatality alley in the Mid-South, according to a 2018 study by Victor Genseni, a Northern Illinois University meteorology professor who specializes in severe storms, and Harold Brooks, a senior scientist at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. "What’s likely happening is that the West is getting drier because of human-caused climate change, which makes it harder for the air to become moist and unstable, which is crucial for tornado formation, they said," Borenstein reports. "The Southeast is getting warmer air, which holds more water vapor, which creates that important instability."

Southeastern tornadoes also tend to be deadlier because they're more prone to happen at night. "About three-quarters of the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma and other Great Plains states occur between 5 and 9 p.m. so people know when to expect them and its more daylight, Brooks said. But in the Southeast they can hit any time, which means more often at night than in Oklahoma, making them more dangerous," Borenstein reports. "Another reason they happen more at night in the Southeast is because they happen more in the springtime and there are just fewer daylight hours, Gensini said. Spring storms are juicier and stronger than summer ones so they don’t need the sun’s daytime heat to add that extra kick of energy to spur tornadoes, he said."

The Southeast also has more trees, hills, and buildings that can block people's sight lines and keep them from seeing a twister coming; that can make them less likely to heed a tornado warning, Borenstein reports. But, "The one advantage tornadoes in the Southeast have is that they are easier for meteorologists to forecast the conditions ripe for bad outbreaks much earlier."

Rural coronavirus vaccination rate passes 50%, but it's still 14 percentage points below the urban rate

Coronavirus vaccination rates as of March 17, compared to national average and adjusted to account for vaccinations not assigned to a county. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

"Nearly a year after Covid-19 vaccines became broadly available to all adults in the United States, just over half of the total rural population is completely vaccinated," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "As of March 17, 50.1% of the nation’s rural population had completed a Covid-19 vaccination regimen, according to a Daily Yonder analysis." The metropolitan rate is 64.2%, just under 14 percentage points higher.

Four states have higher vaccination rates in rural counties than in metro counties: Alaska, Arizona, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Massachusetts has more than 80% of its rural population vaccinated, the highest rural rate of any state, Murphy and Marema report.

Click here for more charts, regional analysis, and county-level interactive maps from the Yonder.

Quick hits: Apply by March 31 for business journalism fellowship; Americans cut back on pricey meat analogues

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

An anonymous donor has given Washington State University its largest gift ever for an initiative aimed at bringing more pharmacists to rural Washington. Read more here.

A journalism professor has a list of 21 types of political spin journalists should know about, and how to spot them. Notable entries include the "dead cat bounce." Read more here.

One columnist shares how her sons' experiences in growing up on the farm will serve them well as adults. Read more here.

Got an idea for an investigative or enterprise journalism project involving business, finance or economics. Apply by March 31 for a fellowship of up to $15,000 from The Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Center for Business Journalism at the City University of New York. Past fellows have produced rural-centric stories, including a recent one from the Center for Public Integrity on Black farmer debt. Read more here.

The National Press Foundation and the Society of Professional Journalists are seeking journalists to fill out a short survey to help the nonprofits design journalism training that serves newsrooms best. Take the quiz here.

The Agriculture Department has named new Farm Service Agency and Rural Development state directors for North Dakota and South Dakota. Read more here.

As inflation rises, consumers are cutting back on purchases of expensive plant-based meat alternatives, and 54% said in a recent survey that such products are too expensive. Read more here.

Amid a severe truck driver shortage, a new study says 90% of long-haul trucking could be done by self-driving trucks. There are some logistical hang-ups and the trucks would have to get better at bad-weather driving, though. Read more here.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Two rural newspaper executives among winners of Yankee Quill Awards from Academy of New England Journalists

Marianne Stanton, The Inquirer and Mirror
Two rural newspaper executives are among the six New England journalists who will receive the Yankee Quill Award next month from the Academy of New England Journalists for contributions to the betterment of journalism in the region. They are Marianne Stanton of the weekly Inquirer and Mirror on Nantucket Island, Mass., and Terrence "Terry" Willliams, president and chief executive officer of the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel.

Stanton has spent more than 40 years at her paper, growing up with it when it was owned by her parents before being sold in 1990. She started as a reporter, became editor, and then publisher. "Under her leadership, the paper has won numerous awards and gained a stellar reputation for its integrity and unwavering belief in the right of people to know what their public officials are doing," the academy says. The paper recently returned to local ownership, with Stanton continuing as editor and publisher.

Terrence Williams, The Keene Sentinel
Williams "is the definition of an accomplished newspaper leader, both as an editor and a publisher," the academy says. "He has been one of New England’s leading publishing executives throughout most of his distinguished 40-year career. His news products have won numerous awards for excellence in journalism and bold revenue solutions. He is an outstanding leader and strong communicator and is regarded as one of the most thoughtful and collaborative publishers in New England."

The other Yankee Quill winners are: Paul Bass, founder, publisher, and editor of the New Haven Independent, one of the country’s leading nonprofit digital news organizations; Tom Condon, former columnist, editorial writer and investigative reporter at the Hartford Courant; Melvin B. MIller, founder, publisher and editor of the Bay State Banner, a weekly for Greater Boston’s African American community; and the late William Monroe Trotter, an early and outspoken 20th-century civil-rights activist who founded the Boston Guardian newspaper.

The inductees were selected in 2021, but the induction ceremony was postponed due to the pandemic. The awards will be presented at a luncheon as part of the annual convention of the New England Newspaper and Press Association Friday, April 29, at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel.

Food research unit says prices will hit 14-year high in 2022

"U.S. food prices will rise by at least 4.2 percent this year, propelled by high energy and commodity prices," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. That's according to the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Minnesota. That would be the highest increase since 2008, when prices went up 5.5%. Agriculture Department economists earlier estimated a 3% increase this year, which would make it the third year straight of above-average increases. The average increase is 2.4%; last year's was 3.9%.

Program director Pat Westhoff said that might be a low estimate: "I won’t give you a specific number, but it’s safe to say that if we were creating a new baseline today, we’d almost certainly show a higher rate." Consumer food inflation could have a hard time returning to normal because of higher farm commodity prices and energy prices brought on by the Ukraine war, Abbott reports.

Rural jobs are nearly back to pre-pandemic level; surveyed rural Americans say pandemic job losses hit them harder

Job gains and losses, January 2020 to January 2022
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.)

"Both rural and urban America now have just about as many jobs as they did in January 2020, the month we first started hearing about Covid-19," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "In January of this year, rural counties had about 99 percent of the jobs they had in January 2020. These places still need to add about a quarter of a million jobs to get back to pre-Covid levels, but that is a fraction of the 20 million jobs in rural America."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest data, "Nearly six out of 10 counties in the U.S. – both rural and urban – had fewer jobs in January of this year compared to January 2020. A great deal of America has not gotten back to the employment levels of early 2020," Bishop reports.

Rural working-age adults report worse employment and economic impacts from the pandemic than their urban counterparts, according to a recent Agriculture Department-funded study by the Rural Population Research Network. Here are some of the highlights of the report:
  • Rural residents were more likely than their urban counterparts to test positive for the coronavirus, live with someone who tested positive, or have close friends or family members outside the household test positive.
  • Rural residents are more likely to have a close family member hospitalized for Covid-19 and more likely to have someone in their household quarantine due to exposure.
  • "Rural working-age adults were more likely to report experiencing several adverse employment and financial impacts than their urban peers. Rural residents were more likely to report that, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, they lost their job (urban=34.3%; rural=39.3%), were considered an essential worker (55.7%; 59.9%), worked fewer hours than normal (48.6%; 54.1%), were late paying their rent or mortgage (14.8%; 18.5%), were late paying other bills (22%; 28%), could not afford groceries or other necessities (17.3%; 22.9%), and that they got a loan from a friend or family member (11.7%; 14.8%)."
Effects of the pandemic on rural and urban respondents. Click the image to enlarge it.
(Rural Population Research Network chart)

March 30 webinar will show you how to research and use data from USDA's Economic Research Service

The Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service provides critical data products, from the Farm Income Forecast to international crop trade trends, to poverty and hunger data. A new series of data training webinars will teach you how to find them, their significance, and how to use them. 

The first one, at 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 30, covers Agricultural Trade Multipliers. From its page:

"Did you know the U.S. exported a record $150.1 billion in agricultural goods in 2020? These exports generated a total of $304.4 billion of income in the U.S. economy and supported a total of 1.13 million jobs. USDA Economic Research Service's Agricultural Trade Multipliers provide annual estimates of employment and output effects of trade in farm and food products on the U.S. economy. When expressed as multipliers, these effects reflect the amount of economic activity and jobs generated by agricultural exports. In this webinar, ERS Economist Wendy Zeng will present the highlights and potential takeaways from the ATM data product, provide an overview of what ATM is used for, and walk participants through how to use the online calculator."

Click here for more information or to register for the March 30 webinar; click here to learn more about future webinars in the series.

Study: Alcohol-related problems jumped during pandemic

Alcohol-related health issues and deaths spiked during the first year of the pandemic, according to a newly published study by researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the National Institutes of Health.

"The startling report comes amid a growing realization that Covid’s toll extends beyond the number of lives claimed directly by the disease to the excess deaths caused by illnesses left untreated and a surge in drug overdoses, as well as to social costs like educational setbacks and the loss of parents and caregivers," Roni Caryn Rabin reports for The New York Times.

The researchers looked through death certificates and included all deaths where alcohol was listed as an underlying or contributing cause. "Among adults younger than 65, alcohol-related deaths actually outnumbered deaths from Covid-19 in 2020; some 74,408 Americans ages 16 to 64 died of alcohol-related causes, while 74,075 individuals under 65 died of Covid. And the rate of increase for alcohol-related deaths in 2020 — 25 percent — outpaced the rate of increase of deaths from all causes, which was 16.6 percent," Rabin reports. "The alcohol-related deaths went up for everybody — men, women, as well as every ethnic and racial group. Deaths among men and women increased at about the same rate, but the absolute number of deaths among men was much higher." Adults aged 25-44 saw the largest increases in alcohol-related deaths that year, increasing nearly 40% from the previous year.

The authors believe many who died were recovering alcoholics who relapsed after losing easy access to support, even as they needed it more than ever due to the pandemic. "Stress is the primary factor in relapse, and there is no question there was a big increase in self-reported stress, and big increases in anxiety and depression, and planet-wide uncertainty about what was coming next," lead researcher Aaron White told Rabin. "That’s a lot of pressure on people who are trying to maintain recovery."

Similarly, "drug overdose deaths also reached record levels during the first year of the pandemic, with more than 100,000 Americans dying of overdoses during the 12-month period that ended in April 2021, a nearly 30 percent increase over the previous year, according to reports issued in November," Rabin reports. "The number of deaths from opioids in which alcohol played a role also increased."

Rural hospitals' size may be an advantage in a pandemic

Summary of rural hospital advantages and related policy recommendations
(Health Affairs chart; click the image to enlarge it)
Rural hospitals have had a difficult time with staffing during the pandemic: fewer staff to begin with, losing staff to lucrative traveling nurse jobs, and overworked, stressed-out staff overall. But that may not be the whole story, five health-care experts write for Health Affairs.

"Despite the many challenges rural hospitals experienced during the pandemic, our interviews revealed that rural hospitals’ small size and connectedness with their workforce and community gave them distinct advantages with respect to the speed of decision making and action, communication with their workforce, and flexibility," they write. "Interestingly, staff issues relating to flexibility, quality of relationships, and organizational culture were all seen as particular strengths of the rural setting."

Such advantages can help mitigate staffing challenges, the experts found through extensive interviews (funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality) with rural hospital employees. They recommend policy actions (see chart above) to help leverage those advantages.

They found that rural hospitals' smaller size means staff are more likely to wear many hats in their everyday work, making them more flexible and adaptable in an emergency such as the pandemic. Their size can foster a close-knit staff who trust each other, and are more likely to help in a crisis regardless of job title. Also, the more intimate setting can make for better communication, the surveys found.

Rural hospitals can also have outsized influence in leading and shaping emergency response systems in their overall communities. Two of the experts are emergency-medicine specialists in Minnesota and Massachusetts, and another is an emergency-management consultant. The others are Ph.D.s at Harvard and Stanford universities.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

White-nose syndrome has nearly wiped out northern long-eared bats, so feds move to declare them endangered

Northern long-eared bat
(Photo by John MacGregor)
"Fifteen years after its was first discovered in a New York cave, white-nose syndrome has decimated the nation’s population of northern long-eared bats, reducing their numbers to almost nothing," Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post. "On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved to reclassify the mammals from threatened to endangered after a review found that 'white-nose syndrome is expected to affect 100 percent” of the animals by 2025.'" The disease has already killed off an estimated 97% of northern long-eared bats, and has infected more than half of the 47 bat species in North America.

As an endangered species, northern long-eared bats will get federal protections they didn't get as a threatened species. "Fish and Wildlife said it is leading a white-nose syndrome national response team of 150 nongovernmental organizations, tribes, states, federal agencies and other institutions to fight the problem," Fears writes. Though the agency said the effort has yielded critical scientific advancements, Fears reports that 15 years of research has produced limited success.

Approximate range of the northern long-eared bat
(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service map)
However, Fears notes, scientists did make a promising discovery in 2018: ultraviolet light appears to kill the fungus that causes the disease, attacking bats as they hibernate.

Northern long-eared bats are found in 37 states, Washington, D.C., and every Canadian province. They and many other bat species pollinate flowers and feed on pests that damage crops. According to Fish and Wildlife, bats contribute at least $3 billion to the U.S. agriculture sector each year. The agency will hold a virtual public meeting from 7 to 8:30 p.m. ET April 7 to discuss the impact of the proposed reclassification, Fears reports.

New rural coronavirus infections at lowest level since last summer, but gap in rural, urban death rates still growing

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, March 13-19
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Nonmetropolitan counties reported about 30,500 new coronavirus infections in the week of March 13-19, a 20 percent drop from the previous week and the lowest number since last July; new cases in metro counties likewise fell even more, about 22%, reports Tim Marema of The Daily Yonder.

There was a much larger rural-urban difference in deaths attributed to Covid-19 last week. Deaths in non-metro counties numbered 1,723, a decline of less than 2% from the week before, but metro counties reported about 5,000 Covid-related deaths, a drop of about 25%.

"The weekly death rate has been higher in rural counties than metropolitan ones for 80 out of the last 85 weeks," Marema reports. "The biggest gap between rural and urban death rates was in November 2020, when the weekly death rate was 150% higher in rural areas than urban ones. The weekly gap narrowed during the Omicron surge but has expanded recently. That's because metropolitan deaths are declining rapidly while the rural death count has remained relatively stable for the past three weeks."

Tennessee Valley Authority to invest $3.5B in gas-burning plants instead of expanding renewable-energy sources

Tennessee Valley Authority's service area; to enlarge, click on it.
"The nation’s largest federally owned utility plans to invest more than $3.5 billion in new gas-burning electric plants, despite President Biden’s commitment to swiftly move away from fossil fuels and eliminate greenhouse gases from the power sector in a little more than a decade," Lisa Friedman reports for The New York Times. "The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to nearly 10 million people across the Southeast, is replacing aging power plants that run on coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. But critics say substituting gas for coal would lock in decades of additional carbon dioxide emissions that are heating the planet and could be avoided by generating more electricity from solar, wind or another renewable source."

A TVA spokesperson said the agency had considered adding more capacity from renewables, but they were less dependable and more expensive than gas. Gas prices can fluctuate greatly; Friedman notes that electricity generation from wind and solar is now generally cheaper than gas.

TVA, once the nation's largest coal buyer, now generates nearly half its power from renewables: "Its legacy hydroelectric dams provide 11 percent of the agency’s power, while nuclear energy supplies another 39 percent and wind and solar make up 3 percent. It has shuttered coal plants to the point that it now draws 19 percent of its power from coal," Friedman reports. "Still, environmental advocates argue that the TVA directors have lagged on energy efficiency and are slow-walking a transition to solar and other renewable power at a time when scientists say countries must sharply and rapidly cut pollution from fossil fuels or face a planet that will dangerously overheat."

Some environmental advocates have criticized Biden for not living up to his campaign promises by allowing the TVA to make this decision, but the president has limited control over its actions. It's an independent agency run by a nine-person board of governors, which is dominated by members nominated by former President Trump.

An opinion piece in from the liberal outlet Jacobin asserts that Biden could simply remove TVA board members who don't implement his climate goals, but it's not that simple. He can remove them only "for cause" and the Senate has to approve any replacements. Biden has already nominated four new members, all still waiting for Senate confirmation, Friedman reports. A White House spokesperson said the appointees are expected to be confirmed this spring.

"In the meantime, Rep. Frank Pallone, the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has opened an investigation into TVA’s plans for new gas-powered plants," Friedman reports. "He and other Democrats said that residents pay too much for Tennessee Valley Authority energy and that the utility is not doing enough to decarbonize."

Rural hospital closures in the last decade affected Blacks and Hispanics more than in the two previous decades

"A new study found that over the last decade, rural counties that had a hospital shut its doors had a higher share of Black and Hispanic residents and greater shares of income inequality compared to prior decades," Robert King reports for Fierce Healthcare. "The study, recently released by the University of North Carolina Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research, explored socioeconomic, demographic and other health system characteristics for rural counties that had and did not have facility closures from 1990 to 2020. The research comes as the Biden administration is pressing to address sources of health equity gaps."

Between 1990 and 1999, rural counties whose hospital closed had an average Black population of 0.4%. From 2000 to 2009, that rose to 0.7%. From 2010 to 2020, it leaped to 5%. That suggests that hospital closures in the past decade were more likely to affect Black residents than in previous decades. "Researchers found that a higher share of Hispanic residents were also more impacted by hospital closures over the last decade," King reports. "From 2010 to 2020, the percentage of U.S. Hispanic residents in a county that faced a closure was 3.9% compared with 1.6% from 2000 to 2009 and 0.7% from 1990 to 1999."

Over the past three decades, rural counties whose hospital closed were increasingly likely to see shortages in primary-care providers and dentists first, King reports.

Drivers of the race-related trends "include the high clustering of rural hospital closures in the South from 2010 to 2020, a region where most of the states did not expand Medicaid after passage of the Affordable Care Act," King reports. "Another driver was the 'growing concentration of closures in rural counties that neighbor metro counties,' the study said."

The findings dovetail with a recent Chartis Group report on rural health-care systems, which it found were disproportionately shuttering in states that had not expanded Medicaid.

Pandemic roundup: Violence against school staff rose during the pandemic, but rural teachers seem less affected

Here's a roundup of recent news stories about the pandemic and vaccination efforts:

The largest trial to date shows that ivermectin, usually a veterinary medicine, didn't reduce people's chances of being hospitalized with Covid-19. Read more here.

Moderna says its newest trial data shows that its coronavirus vaccine produced a strong immune response in children under 6. The vaccine proved moderately effective in reducing Omicron-variant infections overall. Based on the positive results and the need for vaccines for young children, Moderna will seek approval for its vaccine to be administered to 6-to-11-year-olds. Read more here.

Some states are reducing daily reporting of coronavirus data. Some researchers and public-health officials worry that could lead to blind spots, but others say metrics like hospitalizations and wastewater monitoring have become more relevant than daily reports. Read more here.

On Friday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors pleaded with Congress to extend federal pandemic food aid, currently set to expire in July. Read more here.

A recent American Psychological Association report highlights violence against educators and school staff during the pandemic. One-third of teachers surveyed said they've experienced at least one incident of verbal abuse, violence, or the threat of violence from students. More than 40% of school administrators surveyed reported verbal or threatening violence from parents during the 2020-21 school year. About 37% of public-school employees said they wanted to quit. Though the study didn't give a percentage, it said rural employees were less likely to report wanting to quit than their urban and suburban counterparts. Rural teachers were also less likely to report wanting to transfer to another school (24% suburban vs. 18% rural). Read more here and here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

War in Ukraine threatens worldwide food shortage, rise in social and political upheaval; millions more could go hungry

"The war in Ukraine has delivered a shock to global energy markets. Now the planet is facing a deeper crisis: a shortage of food," reports Jack Nicas of The New York Times. The greatest upheaval since World War II "is compounded by major challenges that were already increasing prices and squeezing supplies, including the pandemic, shipping constraints, high energy costs and recent droughts, floods and fires," That could bring more global hunger and social/political upheaval.

"A crucial portion of the world’s wheat, corn and barley is trapped in Russia and Ukraine because of the war, while an even larger portion of the world’s fertilizers is stuck in Russia and Belarus," Nicas reports. "The result is that global food and fertilizer prices are soaring. Since the invasion last month, wheat prices have increased by 21 percent, barley by 33% and some fertilizers by 40%. Ukrainian farms are about to miss critical planting and harvesting seasons. European fertilizer plants are significantly cutting production because of high energy prices. Farmers from Brazil to Texas are cutting back on fertilizer, threatening the size of the next harvests."

The smaller supply of basic commodities will push grocery bills up even higher, and could push food-insecure people over the edge to outright hunger, Nicas writes. In the U.S., where grocery prices were up 8.6% in February over the year before and most pandemic assistance programs have ended, more and more Americans are turning to food banks, Laura Reiley reports for The Washington Post.

"Food-bank officials are reporting growing lines at their distribution centers nationwide. Rates of reported hunger have been increasing since early August, when nearly 8% of respondents said they 'sometimes' or 'often' did not have enough to eat, according to data from the Census Household Pulse Survey," Reiley reports. "In early February, 10% of those polled said their household sometimes doesn’t have enough to eat. That uptick is more significant for households with children, rising to 13%, although off from pandemic peaks." Also in February, 35% of U.S. adults in households with children said they struggled to cover their bills. (On Friday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors pleaded with Congress to extend federal pandemic food aid, currently set to expire in July.)

Worldwide, "After remaining mostly flat for five years, hunger rose by about 18% during the pandemic to between 720 million and 811 million people. Earlier this month, the United Nations said that the war’s impact on the global food market alone could cause an additional 7.6 million to 13.1 million people to go hungry," Nicas reports. "The World Food Program’s costs have already increased by $71 million a month, enough to cut daily rations for 3.8 million people."

If the war ended very soon, Ukraine's agricultural exports would still likely fall by a fifth from 2021, Alistair MacDonald reports for The Wall Street Journal. Damaged land, equipment and infrastructure, along with a scattered populace, will make it difficult for farmers to get back to work right away. But that's the best-case scenario, a Ukrainian agriculture official told MacDonald; the reality will probably be far worse.

Big Western drought is predicted to expand; California farm economy is on the ropes again, raising doubts about future

Seasonal drought outlook for March 17 to June 30, 2022
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map; click on the image to enlarge it.

As of last week, about 61 percent of the United States was in drought, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said was the most extensive drought seen since 2013. Now NOAA's National Weather Service warns that such conditions will likely persist and expand, especially in the West and High Plains, Andrew Freedman reports for Axios.

"After a winter that featured record rain and snow for December in much of California, then switched to dry conditions since, much of the West is facing the prospect of heading into yet another warm season with precipitation deficits," Freedman reports. Southwest drought is the worst in 1,200 years; lakes Mead and Powell, both critical reservoirs fed by the Colorado River, are at their lowest ever.

In California, which produces a quarter of the nation's food, the fertile San Joaquin Valley may lose at least 535,000 acres of agricultural production by 2040, Scott Wilson reports for The Washington Post: "A survey this month found that the year’s historically dry start has resulted in a snowpack more than 60 percent below average. Not a single major reservoir is filled to its average for this time of year. The whiplash has prompted the federal Central Valley Project, the vast Depression-era system of pumps, aqueducts and reservoirs that provides much of this region’s surface water, to declare a second straight year of no water deliveries. The announcement means farmers across the valley must rely on depleted groundwater supplies and what they have been able to store."

The increasing price and scarcity of water has led farmers to leave much land fallow. Meanwhile, current farming activity is depleting groundwater wells at unsustainable rates, Wilson reports.

"There’s a basic question that we need to address, and that is, do we want to sustain irrigated agriculture in California?" said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, which oversees federal water deliveries to more than 700 San Joaquin Valley farms. "If the answer is yes, then we need to determine how we’re going to invest in the infrastructure we need and what policies need to be changed to preserve it," he told Wilson. "If the answer is no, then how are we going to deal with the socio-economic impacts of its elimination?"

Rural local governments are more likely than cities to be led by women; how does your community stack up?

Percentage of top appointed officials who are women by
size of local government (CivicPulse chart)
Women are more likely to lead local governments in small, rural communities than in more urbanized areas, Nathan Lee reports for local-government research outfit CivicPulse. Nevertheless, fewer than one-third of local governments with more than 1,000 residents have appointed women to top roles, though women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce. How does your community stack up?

Women are most likely to lead the smallest towns: 38% of communities with a population of 1,000 to 5,000 are led by women, compared to 27% in communities of 5,000 to 10,000, Lee reports. Women are least likely (21%) to lead communities with 50,000 to 100,000 residents. The share of women in such roles has been increasing by less than 1% per year, meaning the nation as a whole won't reach gender parity among local government leaders until around 2048.

At the state level, only Alabama (which has a female governor) has reached gender parity among top local appointed officials, with 57 of 109 local governments led by women. Notably, the states with the highest share of women local leaders are disproportionately rural: "The next closest states are Idaho (48% of 33 governments), West Virginia (47% of 73 governments), New Hampshire (45% of 162 governments), and Maine (43% of 208 governments)," Lee reports.

CivicPulse bases its research on U.S. Census data compiled by market researcher Power Almanac.

FEMA less likely to approve individual aid for survivors of smaller, more rural disasters; see how your state has fared

FEMA denials of individual assistance from fall 2018 to fall 2021
An interactive feature shows each disaster for which FEMA denied assistance, the date, and estimated damage to homes.
NBC News map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency can be a lifeline for disaster-stricken Americans, providing families up to $75,800 for emergency expenses such as home repairs, hospital bills, funeral costs, and more.

"For the recipients, these funds can mean the difference between rebuilding a longtime home and becoming homeless. But this critical aid is out of reach for many of the nation’s disaster survivors, including some of the most financially vulnerable, an NBC News analysis found," the network's Bracey Harris and Joshua Eaton report. "From fall 2018 to fall 2021, the federal government turned down nearly 40 percent of states’ requests for FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program, totaling 33 denials, according to an examination of agency records. The rejections followed disasters including wildfires, flash floods, tornadoes and mudslides. FEMA estimated that it would have cost $107.5 million to fulfill these denied requests — or less than half of what the agency approved to support New Jersey residents after Hurricane Ida."

Most often, FEMA denied assistance for disasters that spanned only a few counties or happened in rural areas, since the agency prioritizes aid for large-scale disasters or those in densely populated areas. "the agency often considers these other disasters too small to require federal assistance, saying that state and local governments should be able to help instead," Harris and Eaton report. "However, the NBC News analysis found that many of FEMA’s rejections occurred in communities where economic hardships left disaster survivors with few other paths to recovery: Nearly all of the communities that were denied federal aid had poverty rates higher than the national average, while in two-thirds of these communities, less than half of the affected residents had insurance."

Moreover, at least 39 states lack a publicly funded aid program meant to help survivors rebuild homes after a disaster, a 2020 survey found. "Without federal or state assistance, struggling residents in these states are often left to rely on loans or charity — an imperfect safety net, according to elected officials, emergency managers, community advocates and disaster recovery experts, Harris and Eaton report.

Research increasingly shows racial and economic disparities in FEMA's disaster aid programs; experts and advocates say it's more important than ever to address these inequalities as climate change fuels stronger and more frequent disasters that disproportionately hurt marginalized people. "In 2018, the Government Accountability Office reported that the 'subjective' nature of FEMA’s decisions made it difficult for states to know when to seek help," Harris and Eaton report. "Last October, during a U.S. House Homeland Security Committee hearing on equity in disaster response, the GAO official who oversaw that report said the lack of clarity on which communities get aid remains a problem."

Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., complained during the hearing that the agency was leaving vulnerable people behind. "I’m sick and tired of seeing people building multimillion-dollar mansions on the beach and then getting FEMA assistance, while people in rural areas don’t get squat," he said. "We’ve got to change that."

Nearly half of rural heartland bankers surveyed say inflation won't change farm income much; only 11% say it will fall

Creighton University chart compares this month to last month and year ago; click here to download it and chart below.

Rural bankers in 10 Midwestern states that rely on agriculture and energy saw the 16th straight month of positive economic growth in a monthly survey in March, despite concerns about increased production costs and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Rural Mainstreet Index polls bankers in about 200 rural places averaging 1,300 population in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

"A 25 percent gain in farm commodity prices over the past 12 months, near-record-low short-term interest rates and growing agricultural exports have underpinned the Rural Mainstreet Economy," writes Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index.

The overall index for March rose to 65.4 from last month's 61.5; anything over 50 is growth-positive. Though retail sales dipped to 51.9 from February's 57.7, indexes for home sales and bank loan volume increased sharply, and farmland prices, farm equipment sales, and checking deposits remained strong. And, the confidence index, which measures how healthy they believe the economy will be in six months, ticked upward to 54 from February's 51.9. 

"Even with the rapidly rising farm input costs, 42.3% of bank CEOs expect 2022 net farm income to expand from 2021’s healthy level. Only 11.5% of bankers anticipate a decline in 2022 net farm income from 2021’s value. The remaining 46.2% of bankers expect no change in 2022 net farm income from 2021 levels," said the report. "Approximately 38.4% of bankers expect Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to have negative impacts on net farm income. Of bankers projecting negative impacts, damages are expected to be higher for livestock producers than for grain producers."

Monday, March 21, 2022

Deadly Texas crash with 13-year-old driver draws attention to rural custom of allowing young teens behind the wheel

Texas state troopers survey the wreckage from a fatal March 16 crash in west Texas caused by a 13-year-old driver. (Associated Press photo by Eli Hartman)

A deadly crash is drawing renewed attention to the common rural practice of allowing young teenagers and even younger children to drive. Nine people died in West Texas last week when a 13-year-old driving a pickup truck blew a tire and overcorrected, striking a van carrying members of the men's and women's golf teams of the University of the Southwest, a private Christian school in Hobbs, N.M. The teen and his 38-year-old father were killed, along with a golf coach and six students, Gene Johnson reports for The Associated Press. The crash occurred in Andrews County, about 30 miles east of the New Mexico border.

"At a news conference in Odessa, Texas, on Thursday, National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said the dangers of underage driving put it on the agency’s 'most-wanted list'," Johnson reports. "Along with drunk and distracted driving, Landsberg said 'youthful driving' and excessive speed on rural roads are among the problems that make highway driving the most dangerous form of transit in the United States."

In 2020 alone, drivers aged 13 and under were involved in 47 fatal crashes and 1,057 crashes that caused injuries, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. And though there aren't specific statistics on where such underage drivers live, rural roads are nearly twice as deadly overall: "In 2019, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 1.9 times higher in rural areas than in urban areas," Johnson reports. Put another way: nearly half the nation's traffic fatalities in 2019 happened on rural roads, though less than one-fifth of the population is rural.

There were other risk factors: The crash happened at night, on a road with a 75 mile-per-hour speed limit, the tire that blew was a spare not meant for high-speed use, and the driver was a teenage male—one of the highest-risk segments of the driving population, Johnson reports. Several people he interviewed recalled learning to drive on the family farm when they were as young as 10, but also said their parents emphasized safety and refused to let them to drive on public roads until they were legally allowed. One man observed that the road where the crash happened had heavy traffic from nearby oil fields, and said no 13-year-old should have been driving on it to begin with.

William Van Tassel, who manages the American Automobile Association's driver training programs, told Johnson that, while rural teens frequently start driving at a younger age than their suburban and urban peers, that doesn't mean they're ready to hit the highway: "When it comes to public roads, the laws are pretty clear: You can’t be out there until you’re legally eligible."

Black farmers facing an under-researched mental-health crisis driven by debt, racism, and fear of displacement

Unpredictable natural forces, financial risks, and pure physical exertion make farming one of the most stressful occupations in the nation. "But Black farmers have to contend with an additional menace: the systemic racism that has long marred U.S. agriculture," Safiya Charles reports for The Counter, which defines itself as "a nonprofit, independent, nonpartisan newsroom investigating the forces shaping how and what America eats."

"These producers face down all the typical hardships while also navigating other hazards, including legal battles with the government, discriminatory lenders and opportunistic land grabbers," Charles reports. "These painful interactions tend to underscore the racist—and tragically long-standing—myth that Black people don’t belong in farming, and don’t deserve the tools required to succeed."

Louisiana sugar cane farmer Angie Provost told Charles that many Black farmers, including those in her and her husband's families, "have the same story: sitting there in a USDA office waiting to be serviced, and never being serviced properly; being told by local agents that you will not succeed," said Angie. "'You will fail.' 'You are not a farmer.' Those types of things are told to you directly." Only about 1% of farmers are Black, and advocates blame the declining percentage on decades of loan denials by the Agriculture Department and associated lenders.

"These grinding forms of discrimination take a deeply personal toll, contributing to a mental-health crisis among Black farmers that’s at once acute and yet hard to see," Charles writes. "Help is not exactly on the way. While programs do exist to help farmers handle the stress of the profession, many existing lifelines are geared toward the approximately 95 percent of U.S. farmers who are white, downplaying or outright ignoring the specific forms of distress that stem from race-based prejudice. Though a small but vital body of research points to the need for a more inclusive approach, and at least one advocacy group is working to better understand the scope of the problem, few efforts are being made to address the problem on the ground. For now, too many farmers still have nowhere to turn, their suffering largely rendered invisible within the support systems that exist."

Government programs meant to tackle farming stress don't generally tend to the unique needs of Black farmers. "In 2021, the USDA announced $25 million to state Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Networks to build crisis hotlines, establish anti-suicide trainings, and offer free or low-cost counseling, among other services," Charles reports. "It was an important step toward recognizing the emotionally grueling, often isolating nature of farm work. But it did little to respond to the needs of Black farmers, who tend to operate smaller farms, face increased economic pressure, and are routinely exposed to racism in agriculture and beyond. Of the 50 FRSAN projects USDA funded in 2021, only seven—in Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Rhode Island—pledge to make efforts to accommodate the specific needs of communities of color."

More researchers are beginning to examine racism in farming. "Kentucky State University economist and rural sociologist Marcus Bernard worked with farmers in Alabama’s Black Belt region as the former director of a rural training and research center for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a nonprofit association of about 20,000 mostly Black farmers and landowners," Charles reports. "While completing his Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky, Bernard examined how racism, institutional racism, and class conflict affected Black male farmers. His research identified high levels of acute stress in both African American men and women farmers," including farm wives.

County official tries to buy paper investigating him; publisher says 'No!' via 2-page spread with readers' aghast comments

Two-page spread in the Malheur Enterprise turning down local and state official
Greg Smith's offer to buy the paper that's investigating him. Click image to enlarge.
The award-winning Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon, is up for sale, but Editor and Publisher Les Zaitz isn't about to sell his family's weekly to the official the paper has been investigating. Under the terms offered by county Economic Development Director Greg Smith, all six of the paper's employees would lose their jobs.

Zaitz rejected the unsolicited bid in style: He invited readers to share their thoughts about Smith taking over, then published them in a two-page spread headed "GREG SMITH: NO DEAL."

Readers said they did not want the paper in hands of Smith, who is also a state legislator ("Please tell Greg Smith to pound sand. Thanks!"), and many implored Zaitz not to sell at all, praising the Enterprise's high-quality, in-depth community reporting. "We need this paper!" one reader wrote. "Truth and investigative reporting is the backbone of keeping law breakers and swindlers in check. Please don’t stop. The good ol' boys need someone who watches their backhanded dealings. Spending the taxpayers' money and making new rules to serve their interests or a select few. Who else but the reporter to view and publish meetings and events we can’t attend and keep us informed. Keep up the good work!"

Zaitz thanked readers for their support, and said in an email: "We remain committed to give Malheur County unflinching reporting that tells the truth, holds the powerful accountable and celebrates the great things about living here."

Rural health-care systems in the South are crumbling from the pressures of the pandemic, Politico reports

Health-care systems in rural America, especially in the South, are crumbling amid the pressures of the coronavirus pandemic. Daniel Payne of Politico reports in a wide-ranging story.

"Of the 50 counties with the highest Covid deaths per capita, 24 are within 40 miles of a hospital that has closed, according to a Politico analysis in late January. Nearly all 50 counties were in rural areas." That doesn't prove the closure of hospitals led to higher death rates, because rural counties generally have higher infection rates, lower vaccination rates and lower health status than urban and suburban counties. But Payne raises the possibility that the closure of 181 rural hospitals since 2005 has discouraged vaccination and other preventive measures: "In the communities where health resources disappear, so too does confidence in the medical system. Trusted sources of information go elsewhere."

And the list of closures "may be just the beginning," Payne writes. "Over 450 rural hospitals are at risk of closure, according to an analysis by the Chartis Group, one of the nation’s largest independent health-care advisory firms."

In pandemic surges, rural residents with a local hospital couldn't always access treatment. The nationwide bed shortage led to long waits in rural emergency rooms and critical patients left waiting for transfers to larger hospitals, Payne reports. "The entire system clogged up," Claude Brunson, executive director of the Mississippi State Medical Association, told him. "Without a doubt, there are some patients who died because we did get bottlenecked and couldn’t establish a very good flow of care across the system — because we had lost the numbers of beds that we truly did need."

Payne's object example is Haywood County, Tennessee, which "had its health care system ground down in the years leading up to the pandemic: Ever since the 84-year-old Haywood County Community Hospital closed its doors in 2014, the numbers of doctors and other health care professionals dwindled. Residents who once were on a first-name basis with their care professionals were left to book appointments at facilities miles from where they’d raised their families and grown older."

One factor Payne doesn't note: the lack of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act in Tennessee and most other Southern states.

Tuesday afternoon webinar will examine the social-justice side of rural water supplies, from California to Appalachia

A free webinar from 3 to 4:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, March 22, will discuss the challenges and demands of funding, developing and maintaining a "just rural water infrastructure." It's part of the Rural Reconciliation Project, a University of Nebraska College of Law initiative that seeks to cut through popular narratives on both sides of the rural-urban divide and assess the past, present and future of big structural issues in rural America. This is the final webinar in a series; earlier ones have addressed rural jobs, power, transportation, and broadband

A panel of experts and advocates will lead the webinar, moderated by Priya Baskaran, an assistant law professor and director of the Entrepreneurship Law Clinic at American University Washington's College of Law. Her recent paper "Thirsty Places" examines the parallels between urban and rural water insecurity through a comparison of Flint, Michigan, and rural southern West Virginia. The paper also explores who bears responsibility for water inequality (including businesses and public agencies), existing government funding mechanisms for water infrastructure, and possible solutions. It's not required reading for the webinar, but wouldn't hurt.

The panel will also feature:
  • Camille Pannu, director of the Aoki Water Justice Clinic at the University of California-Davis College of Law, and co-director of the Community and Economic Development Clinic at the University of California-Irvine School of Law. As a community lawyer with an explicit racial and economic justice lens, she works to ensure access to safe and affordable water, particularly in rural California.
  • Oday Salim, an adjunct clinical assistant professor of law and director of the Environmental Law & Sustainability Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. He is also an attorney at the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Regional Center. In addition to his expertise in Great Lakes region water issues, he has experience working with mid-Atlantic communities impacted by hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas.
  • Katherine Garvey, teaching associate professor and director of the Land Use and Sustainability Law Clinic at West Virginia University College of Law. She is an expert on land and water issues in Appalachia and has worked on environmental protection at local and federal levels.
Click here to register for the webinar.